Valdas Adamkus became president of Lithuania in 1998 after an astonishing personal journey that began when he fled Lithuania as a teenager after the Soviet Union seized his country in 1944. He came to the United States and lived for 47 years in Chicago and Hinsdale, becoming the regional administrator here for the Environmental Protection Agency. After the Soviet Union collapsed and Lithuania regained its independence, Adamkus returned, was elected president and has led his nation to the brink of membership in NATO and the European Union. Adamkus, 74, spoke to the Tribune during a visit to Chicago to accept an honorary doctorate from DePaul University.
Q. What was your reaction to President Bush's speech in Warsaw, urging an expansion of NATO and the European Union?
A. This was one of the best speeches by an American leader on European issues. He had a feel for the history, for World War II, the consequences of the Cold War, and a vision of what is needed for tomorrow. It was encouraging that he said that the United States and the other NATO members are not Russia's enemy. He welcomed Russia to join Europe.
Q. Is there anything standing in Lithuania's way to NATO membership?
A. Next year in Prague, during the NATO summit, candidate countries will be invited. I believe that Lithuania will be among the first and the best-prepared candidates.
Q. Russia isn't going to like NATO membership for the Baltic nations. How seriously do you take this Russian opposition?
A. In my meeting [in March] with President [Vladimir] Putin, he said just what you said, that Russia definitely doesn't like the architecture of NATO. But I expressed our unwavering decision to build our future with other European countries within the framework of NATO. I said that, as a sovereign country, we have the right to choose the way we want to live and who our friends will be. I said you are going to respect our rights, and he agreed to that.
Q. What do you think of Putin?
A. I believe he's a forward-looking man. He's realistic. He definitely has to consider his own country's priorities, especially when he has to deal with a part of the population that has some sentiments for the past. But he knows that Russia cannot be separated from the rest of the world. I'm not saying that Russia is democratic, the way we'd like to see democracy work. This should be considered a transition period until the new generation of Russians takes over.
Q. Can Russia ever really join NATO?
A. I wouldn't be surprised that within a decade, Russia could be a valuable member of NATO. This is mostly a psychological issue. Russia sees a Cold War NATO, the enemy of the Soviet Union. So long as Russian leaders hold that picture, it will be very difficult for Russia to join the Western alliance.
Q. Why should Lithuania be admitted to NATO? What would you bring to it?
A. Unfortunately, we are geographically between East and West. We'd like to build our children's future in a safe Europe, and I believe we can contribute to that. We have a military that is functional and well-trained, and we are going to meet our obligations. Our 20,000 young men are not going to change the history of Europe. We are not defendable, just as Berlin was not defendable during the  airlift. But it was protectable, and we are too.
Q. Do you still view Russia as a military threat?
A. Not today. Because of its economic difficulties, Russia is not strong enough to be a threat to the West.
Q. What about tomorrow, then?
A. I hope that humanity is wiser than that, after two world wars. Russia itself lost 20 million lives. Do you want to see that again?
Q. Russia is a chaotic society, with economic and other problems that Western nations don't have. How does this affect you?
A. In the last 10 years, we have very firmly established our own structure. Every day we are improving our economic and social structures. Our gross national product, starting from ground zero, now is expected to reach 4 percent or better this year. This is the best indication that nothing is tied into the Russian economy.
Q. Because joining NATO will anger Russia, why bother? Why not wait and join the EU?
A. If we consider NATO only as some kind of military factor, then this argument is valid. But NATO also has a very important economic side. As a NATO member, we could give Western capital some kind of reassurances that this is a stable geopolitical region, that investments from the West are safe. Take Poland. In the one year since it joined NATO, Poland's investment from the West jumped about 36 or 40 percent.
Q. Is it important for the Baltic states--Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia--to enter NATO and the EU together?
A. Psychologically, it would be really nice to have about 10 million people, as a bloc, incorporated into the European system. All three consider themselves natural members of Western society, even when we were forcibly separated for half a century. We feel we are part of Europe, part of Western Europe.
Q. Russia still insists that Lithuania and the other Baltic nations "voluntarily" joined the Soviet Union. How important is it to you that they accept that Lithuania was incorporated by force?
A. Everybody knows Stalin occupied us, sent our people to Siberia. What kind of voluntarism was this? I don't think you and I would agree voluntarily to be hanged. I am really surprised that today, when Russia is moving toward democracy, they have some bureaucrats who dare to say something like this. If Russia is serious about becoming a new Russia, it must understand an open society.
Q. You seem to be saying that it is more important for Russia than it is for Lithuania that Russia face up to its own history. Do you feel that Putin understands this?
A. I believe he is realistic enough to recognize this and has to cope with the old bureaucrats, who 60 years later are marching in victory parades carrying portraits of Lenin and Stalin. But look at them. Who are they? All people over 60 or 70. They live in the past. I hope Russia is moving forward.